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A Fiscal Analysis of Marijuana Decriminalization




It is difficult to distinguish the roles of PC Section 17 and the "Wobbler," PC 1000 (drug diversion), the Moscone Act, and the Determinate Sentencing Act of 1976 in reducing prison populations for all had some effect. Nevertheless it is possible to follow their cumulative impact chronologically. It should be remembered that by definition, a -felony is a crime for which a possible sentence is a year or more in prison. Most if not all felony offenders reach prison via the Superior Court pipeline.

Section 17 PC allowed certain felonies, including many Marijuana possession cases, to be disposed of in lower courts. This began the process of clearing the congestion in Superior Court, but increased the workload in the lower courts. PC 1000, the 1973 drug diversion program, also took first offenders out of the courts, jails and prisons by allowing their charges to be dismissed upon completion of a drug treatment program.

As a result the number of felony offenders disposed of in Superior Court began diminishing, with the direct effect of reducing the number of felony marijuana offenders in prison from 668 in 1973, to 605 in 1974 and 317 in 1975 (Source 1).

The Moscone Act, effective January 1, 1976, augmented this process by taking the most common marijuana offense-- possession of a small amount out of Superior Court entirely. Moreover, this did not increase the lower court workload. As explained in a previous chapter, the new law provided that individuals apprehended for possession of less than an ounce need not be formally arrested or booked on the misdemeanor charge. This provision meant that marijuana possession offenders did not have to appear even in lower courts. And since the maximum penalty for this offense was a $100 fine (not incarceration), jail as well as prison populations fell.

As a result, felony marijuana offenders in prison again fell to only 198 in 1976. Thus!. before the Determinate Sentencing Act, the combined three laws had reduced marijuana felon populations by 70 percent between 1973 and 1976, simply by emptying the Superior Court pipeline of felony marijuana possession cases.

The Determinate Sentencing Act occasioned a one-time, across-the-board release of felons from prison (Source 1). This is reflected in the drop in marijuana felons from 198 in 1976 to 146 in 1977. The law's long-term effect was to decrease the number of trials in Superior Court and to increase the number Of guilty pleas (Source 2).

Acting in tandem, these legislative changes continued to reduce the marijuana felon population to 121 in 1978, 101 in 1979, and 98 in 1980. Starting with 668 marijuana felons in 1973, this represents an enormous 85 percent drop in the number of marijuana prisoners.

Then in 1981, as felony arrests for sale and cultivation of marijuana climbed and leveled off at about 21,000 a year, the number of marijuana felons in prison again began to rise, reaching 327 by 1984. Overall, the result of the Moscone Act and these other influences was to reduce the marijuana prison population to about half its 1972 level.


The California Department of Corrections keeps close track of the per capita costs of convicted felons in prison or on parole. Since it costs no more for a marijuana offender than for any other inmate or parolee, it is easy to determine the costs of adult felony marijuana offenders by Multiplying the number of such of-fenders in prison or on parole by the per capita costs each year. All statistics for this calculation were provided by the Department of Corrections (Source 1).

77/78 (77) 146 $10,400 $1,518,400 216 $ 792 $171,072
78/79 (78) 121 $10,058 $1,217,018 104 $ 854 $88,816
79/80 (79) 101 $11,304 $1,141,704 85 $1,285 $109,225
80/81 (80) 98 $12,646 $1,239,308 880 $1,408 $112,640
81/82 (81) 119 $12,706 $1,512,014 69 $1,103 $76,107
82/83 (82) 157 $12,706 $1,994,842 76 $ 837 $63,612
83/84 (83) 191 $12,948 $2,473,068 167 $1,393 $232,631
84/85 (84) 327 $14,344* $4,690,488 234 $1,847 $432,198

NOTES: *1984/85 Institution and Parole per capita costs are estimated. The Population counts are as of December 31 each year. Felons counted are those with marijuana as their most serious offense.

In 1973, the 668 marijuana offenders in prison were about 3 percent

of the total prison population of 22,486. In 1980 the 98 Marijuana felons were less than half of one percent (0.4 per-cent) of the prison population, and by 1984 the 327 marijuana felons were 0.76 percent of that population.

By reducing the number of marijuana felons significantly compared to their 1972-74 levels, the Moscone Act and the other laws mentioned above saved the taxpayers consider-able sums of money. Nevertheless it should be noticed that the cost of keeping 327 marijuana offenders in prison in 1984 was nearly 5 million dollars.


1. Total and Marijuana Felon prison populations for 1972-84, and Per Capita Institution and Parole Costs for fiscal 1977/78 to 1985/86 were provided by Phyllis Marquez and Linda Greutle, Estimates Unit, California Department of Corrections (Sacramento)., in January 1986. Ms. Greule alerted us to the possible influence of the Determinate Sentencing Act in addition to the Moscone Act in reducing prison populations, as well.

2. Judicial Council of California, 1985 Annual Report to the Governor and the Legislature (San Francisco, 1986), p. 21. The Judicial Council reports since 1977 have followed the influence of the Determinate Sentencing Act closely.

MRA NOTE: in the later version of this report, look in the Prison.CDC file folder for a study Linda Greule sent on the aver-age time served before parole by marijuana prisoners.

Also: do a comparative cost estimate like the one in my PRISON.CDC -file.

Also; check sources Suggested by Linda Greule for per capita costs before 1977-- take it back to at least 1972. PRISON.CDC -file again.


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